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Africanus Maxwell

Hannah Holmes by Farah Khan

Farah chose to recreate the fate of black sailor Africanus Maxwell, through the voice of an eye-witness to his murder, Hannah Holmes.

Click on the blue text to hear Farah reading.

Don't tell the truth.  You hear me?  Don't ever tell the truth.   And don't never ever do the right thing.  Trust me, coz I know what happens if you do. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't listened to them clergy.  Them that always went on about telling the truth and doing the right thing and all being equal in the eyes of God.  Well, you know what -its all a bloody lie and I shan't ever listen to the likes of them again. 

Not that it's gonna help me now.  I'm stuck in here sharing with all sorts: thieving men, women, babies - even lunatics.  'House of Correction' they calls it more like 'House of Filth'.  Stinks in here and if the other prisoners don't get yas, gaol fever certainly will.  You know - 2 bairns died already - and I only been in here a week! 

I know what you're thinking I'm a bad person who's in denial.  But I'm not. 

I was a good lass until I was left with no choice, so you musn't judge me until you heard me out. Things started to go wrong for me a couple of years ago, when I started to serve liquor at the Burns Head in Shields - you know - the one on Union Road on the quay. Well, it was summer and I was in me bedroom at the top of the house, which I shared with the housekeeper. I was trying to get to sleep but as usual it was really noisy outside coz of the drunkards who would hang around on the quay. But then I heard this shouting. It uas so unusual so I got out of bed and looked out me window. It must have been about about 2 or 3 O Clock, coz it was getting light. Anyway's, I sees 3 men one of them a black. He was telling the other two that he didnt' want to fight with them.

Then he runs away.   The taller man chases after him but he falls down.  Again the black says to him: I dont want to fight, you cant even stand up, but the man swore at him something vicious.  Then he grabs him by the legs and throws him over the side of the quay shouting, now can I stand? The tide was out and the black man he just cried out in pain.

I was so beside myself that I called out the window to the shorter man: are you not ashamed of yourself to see your fellow creature used so? And to the tall one, I says: Youve murdered the man! And you know what he says back to me?  If I had you here, I would do the same.

Then I saw the shorter man whats his name - Craggs, then go up to the black and say: is your back hurt? as if he cared.  But then the tall one, called Mallet, climbs down the steps, takes the black by the hair, and knocks his heads against a punt that was lying there.  Then he throws the body into the boat for good measure. 

They had a murder trial at Newcastle Assizes the following year I think it was February 1832 yes I remember it was - coz thats when I had to find new lodgings.  Anyways, I was the main witness and I told them all that I saw.  And the housekeeper, Hannah Morris, she backed me up coz also she heard all the goings on too.     And there was this other woman, Jane, who also lived on the quay.  She told the court she saw one man run after another, and then grab his leg.  She also heard the arguing and what I shouted out. Africanus Maxwell, for that was his name, he groaned very heavily.  The two men then left him there for dead and walked off.  The black never made another sound.

So, I shouted for the watchman.  He went after them and charged them with murder. Turns out they were all seamen.  Came off HMS Orestes, a Royal Navy sloop of war, docked on the quay that very same day.

And the watch, Thomas Richmond, he told them what happened before the murder.  Apparently, the black had gone up to him, face covered in blood and asked him to arrest the two men.  But he didnt he said because hadnt seen the incident himself.  Anyways, the watch said that when he passed the men, he heard Craggs say to Mallet, lets go on board but Mallett replied, no, well have more of him first.

I thought there was enough to convict the men of murder for thats what it was.  But then they started bringing on a load of people, who tried to make out I was lying! 

There was this marine from the Orestes, who said he was on sentry duty that night and that if Africanus Maxwell had been thrown into the quay, he would have seen it!  Then he says that Maxwell who died the next day didnt say a word against the prisoners!  How could he he was half dead! 

Then they got the ships surgeon on.  He said Maxwell died of a broken neck probably from the fall.  Then he said that Maxwell didnt have on a mark on him even though the watchman said his face was covered in blood!  

Another surgeon from Newcastle agreed with him!  I couldnt believe my ears.  Why were all they lying under oath?

Then they got this woman on. Id never seen before in me life.  This Mary Coates, she says, I had a grudge against Mallet.  She told the court that I was going with a sailor but I never was.  I was a chaste woman.  She also said that the day after the murder, she heard me tell him I would see Mallet hanged for liquor hed ordered and not paid for!  Thats a lie if ever I heard one!  I never seen Mallet before the murder!

The judge, he then spoke the jury, telling them they had to take my character into consideration when they made their decision.  As if I was on trial and not them! And they did.  They came back about three minutes later. Their verdict was not guilty!  The judge then discharged them with just a warning against drinking and keeping bad company! 

I was in shock.  I still am.  It was as if the blacks life counted for nothing - even though hed risked his life fighting for the Empire.  It was as if his colour barred him from justice- even in death.


And then to top it all - instead of the guilty being punished I was. I lost me job at the Burns Head and me lodgings.  Mr Kay he said he didnt want someone with my reputation working for him.  But I hadnt done anything wrong I just told the truth.  And Id spoken up for a black.  After that no one would talk to me.  And no one would give me a job.

You must understand Im not a bad person.  I just had to eat.  I had to live.  I had no choice.  I dont have no family.  Anyways, I ended up in the alleyway off Clive Street, plying me trade with the other women.  It was very hard at first but you get used to it.  And thats how I ended up in here.

I used to think I was lucky coz I was born free not like that Africanus Maxwell he used to be a slave you know on one of them sugar plantations.   Poor bugger he escaped.  Theyre freeing them now of course if only hed waited a little longer. 

But you know you dont have to be a slave to be in chains.  You can be born into them.  No one chooses to be poor.  And God help you if youre female and poor.  And you can never escape, not until you open your own mind and set yourself free.  Only then can you force them that decide - that you deserve to be free. 

So tell them clergy, who say were all equal in the eyes of God that we need to be equal in the eyes of man - whether or not were poor or black.  Otherwise, theres no point in telling the truth.  And theres no point in listening to them that get us to practice what they dont.  And I know why its because its all a bloody lie and I shant never ever listen to the likes of them again.

Copyright: Farah Khan

Farah Khan Biography

Farah Khan is a freelance journalist who has reported and presented for a range of radio and television companies across the UK, including BBC North, BBC Radio 4 and 5, Granada Television in Manchester and Central Television, Birmingham.  She has also worked behind the scenes as a news producer and as an assistant producer on the BBC TV programmes Top Gear and Countryfile .

She is currently freelancing for the print media her latest contribution is to a book just published by The Guardian entitled Islam, Race and Being British: The New Politics of Belonging.  In another book, Perspectives on Culture, she wrote about the need for positive mutual engagement with ethnic minorities to enable better integration and community cohesion. A performance piece challenging perceptions about the Hijab, was published in the anthology, A Taste of Liquorice in 2004.    

She is on the board of Arts Council England North East and Shakers and Movers, a group that seeks to promote cultural diversity through the arts and education.